Just what does the Bible say about gays?
- Just what does the Bible say about gays?
The Age November 1, 2004
We can cherry-pick biblical references to homosexuality, ignoring the
message of love, writes Nicholas Kristof.
So when God made homosexuals who fall deeply, achingly in love with
each other, did he goof? That seems implicit in US legislative
efforts to oppose gay marriage.
Over the past few months, I've been researching the question of how
the Bible regards homosexuality. Social liberals tend to be
uncomfortable with religious arguments, but that is the ground on
which political battles are often decided.
I think it's presumptuous of conservatives to assume that God is on
their side. But I also think it's stupid of liberals to forfeit the
Some scholars, such as Daniel Helminiak, author of What the Bible
Really Says About Homosexuality, argue that the Bible is not
anti-gay. I don't really buy that.
It's true that the story of Sodom is treated by both modern scholars
and by ancient Ezekiel as about hospitality, rather than
homosexuality. In Sodom, Lot puts up two male strangers for the
night. When a lustful mob demands they be handed over, Lot offers his
two virgin daughters instead. After some further unpleasantness, God
destroys Sodom. As Mark Jordan notes in The Invention of Sodomy in
Christian Theology, it was only in the 11th century that theologians
began to condemn homosexuality as sodomy.
In fact, the most obvious lesson from Sodom is that when you're
attacked by an angry mob, the holy thing to do is to offer up your
Still, the traditionalists seem to me basically correct that the Old
Testament does condemn at least male anal sex (scholars disagree
about whether the Hebrew phrasing encompasses other sexual contact).
A plain reading of the Book of Leviticus is that male anal sex is
every bit as bad as other practices that the text condemns, like
wearing a polyester-and-cotton shirt (Leviticus 19:19).
As for the New Testament, Jesus never said a word about gays, while
he explicitly advised a wealthy man to give away all his assets and
arguably warned against bank accounts ("do not store up for
yourselves treasures on earth"). Likewise, Jesus praises those who
make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, but conservative
Christians rarely lead the way with self-castration.
Theologians point out that that the Bible is big enough to encompass
gay relationships and tolerance - as well as episodic condemnations
of gays. For example, 1 Samuel can be read as describing gay affairs
between David and Jonathan.
In the New Testament, Matthew and Luke describe how Jesus cured the
beloved servant of a centurion - and some scholars argue that the
wording suggests that the pair were lovers, yet Jesus didn't blanch.
The religious right cites one part of the New Testament that clearly
does condemn male homosexuality - not in Jesus' words, but in Paul's.
The right has a tougher time explaining why lesbians shouldn't marry
because the Bible has no unequivocal condemnation of lesbian sex.
A passage in Romans 1 objects to women engaging in "unnatural" sex,
and this probably does mean lesbian sex, according to Bernadette
Brooten, the author of a fascinating study of early Christian
attitudes toward lesbians. But it's also possible that Paul was
referring to sex during menstruation or to women who are aggressive
In any case, do we really want to make Paul our lawgiver? Will we
enforce Paul's instruction that women veil themselves and keep their
hair long? (Note to President Bush: If you want to obey Paul, why
don't you start by veiling Laura and keeping her hair long, and only
then bar gay marriages.)
Given these ambiguities, is there any solution? One would be to
emphasise the sentiment in Genesis that "it is not good for the human
to be alone", and allow gay lovers to marry.
Or there's another solution. Paul disapproves of marriage except for
the sex-obsessed, saying that it is best "to remain unmarried as I
So if we're going to cherry-pick biblical phrases and ignore the
central message of love, then perhaps we should just ban marriage?
Pulitzer Prize-winner Nicholas Kristof is a columnist with The New